How to Butcher Bear Meat

How to Butcher Bear Meat. (Image: tbralnina/iStock/GettyImages)

Wild game can be pretty variable in quality, and that's especially true of bear. A bear that's been making a living at the city dump isn't going to taste very good, but one that's been fattening up on dropped apples at an abandoned orchard will be very nice indeed. Wherever your bear was shot, it won't be as tasty – or safe – as it could be unless it's field-dressed quickly, then kept cold until you can butcher it.

Tools for Black Bear Meat Processing

There are a few things you'll need, starting with a suitable workspace. Clear a large area in your garage, shed or an outdoor space, and cover it with a clean tarp or a heavy-duty painter's dropcloth. You can work on the ground or the floor if you have to, but your back and knees will thank you if you find a large table instead. You're also less likely to contaminate the bear meat if you aren't kneeling or stepping on the tarp.

You'll need a large, sharp knife as well. A butcher's curved "scimitar" is made for the purpose, but any decent knife will work as long as it's sharp. If you have a whetstone or a pull-through sharpener, keep it nearby so you can restore your edge as you work.

For cutting through bone, you'll need a meat-cutting saw or a pair of thoroughly cleaned axes. A meat-cutting saw is basically a hacksaw with a special blade meant for cutting meat and bone. You can buy them at any outdoor-outfitting store, online or at hardware stores during hunting season. If you opt for axes, use one smaller, sharp ax as a wedge and the larger one as a mallet to drive it through the bone. If you have a mallet, by all means, use it instead.

If you hunt a lot, or if you raise and butcher your own livestock, you might want to invest in a meat-cutter's band saw. These are much like a woodworker's band saw but much easier to clean and sanitize, and they're waterproofed, so you can hose them down without damaging their electrical components.

Fabricating Primals and Sub-Primals

If you packed out your bear on the back of an ATV or other vehicle, you might start the butchering process with an intact carcass. Otherwise, you'll probably be working with a quartered carcass. You'll break down the animal the same way in either case, first into the main cuts – primals and sub-primals, in meat-cutting terms – and then into the smaller cuts to package up for the freezer. Skip any steps you've already done in the field.

Either way, unless you're working in an unheated space at a refrigerator-like temperature, you should pack bags of ice around the rest of the carcass to keep it cold as you work.

Bear tastes somewhat like beef, but if you look at a bear-butchering chart, you'll see that it's butchered like a hog. Bears resemble hogs in their fattiness and, more importantly, their general proportions, so if you can't find a chart specifically for bear-meat cuts, you can use a pork-butchering chart instead.

The Fat Layer on the Carcass

A bear shot in autumn will have an especially thick layer of fat under the skin, much like a hog or a wild boar. Some hunters strip that off while they're field-dressing the animal to speed cooling. If yours still has the fat on it, cut it away from the back and sides of the carcass in long slabs until you're down to bare meat. Refrigerate the fat, and begin butchering the meat.

Fabricating the Forequarters

Rotate one of the forelegs away from the rib cage and find out where the shoulder muscles connect to the torso. Cut around that joint with your knife to sever the first foreleg, and set it aside. Do the same for the second foreleg, on the other side.

Usually, you'll crack the breastbone while field-dressing the bear, but do it now if you haven't previously. Either saw through it, or, if you're using an ax as your splitting wedge, you can drive it into the base of the breastbone at the abdominal cavity, and then drive that ax through the bone with a mallet or a second ax.

Look for the tenderloins, two long, tapered cylinders of muscle that run along the underside of the rib cage. Cut these away carefully, because they're the choicest of bear-meat cuts. Transfer them to a cooler or refrigerator, while you work on the rest of the carcass. Finally, if you didn't do this while you were field-dressing the bear, cut through the spine between the second and third ribs to separate the front and back halves.

Fabricating the Hind Quarters

Draw one of the hind legs away from the spine, and cut around the hip joint with your knife. Follow the natural seams between the muscles to the greatest extent you can. Once you've exposed the hip joint, cut through it with your saw or ax. Repeat with the other hind leg.

At this point, you'll have the two hind legs set apart, and the back half of the spine with the loin and sirloin. The loin section also will have a portion of belly meat attached to each side. Now it's time to move on and break down these large sections into smaller cuts.

Trimming Away the Extremities

Cut through the two forelegs at their "elbow" joints and the two hind legs at the knees. The bottom half of each leg, the shank, is flavorful but tough and full of connective tissue. Set this aside for soup bones, or cut the meat away from the bones and use it for grinding.

Using your ax or saw, cut the neck away from the shoulder. The neck meat is also tough, and it's encased in heavy, complicated bones. You can slow-roast it on the bone in a big roaster, but it's usually easiest to use your knife to cut away the large muscles as neatly as possible and use them for pot roast, stew meat or grinding.

Breaking Down the Forequarters

Cut away the belly meat from the rib area, including the layer that insulates the ribs. These are the fatty slabs you'll use if you plan to make black bear bacon. Set them aside in your cooler or refrigerator; then cut the side ribs away from the rib cage at the point where the meat begins to thin.

This rib section is another of the choicest bear-meat cuts, so decide now whether you're going to use it for steaks or roasts. Cut it into smaller or larger pieces with your saw, accordingly. You might also opt to cut away the muscle from the bone to make boneless rib roasts and steaks and leave the bones as back ribs. In that case, saw away the back ribs from the spine when you've finished.

The chest muscles are the brisket area, and you can cut them away by following the natural seams between the muscles with your knife. The upper and lower portions of the shoulder – "chuck" and "shoulder," respectively – are fatty and flavorful, but chewy and filled with connective tissue and small muscles running in all directions. Cut these up for pot roasts and stew meat, and set the trimmings aside for grinding.

Breaking Down the Loin

Start by cutting away the belly meat that's attached to the loin area. These are the plate and the flank, and they can go for bacon if they're well-seamed with fat, or you can use them for pot roasts or grinding.

The front half of the loin is another choice section, corresponding to the strip-loin on a beef steer or the loin roasts and chops on a hog. The simplest option is to follow the line of the backbone with your knife and cut the muscles away from the spine. Once they're free, you can cut them into steaks or roasts. You can also opt to leave the tenderloins in place on the underside of the backbone, and cut through this section for bone-in loin chops. That's the bear equivalent of a T-bone steak.

The back half of the loin section is the sirloin. This is good for oven roasts or as less-special steaks or chops for weeknight meals. It's also a good choice to cube for kebabs or cut into strips for stir-fries and casseroles.

Breaking Down the Hind Legs

The hind leg consists of the rump, which is the portion higher on the hip, and the round, which is the thigh section. They'll make passable roasts or pot roast, though they're not as choice as the sirloin. They're relatively dense and lean, so the meat from the rump or round works well as stew meat, jerky or – once roasted – as sliced meat for sandwiches.

Break these large sections down by following the natural seams of the muscles with your knife. Once you've separated out each muscle, trim it of connective tissue and surface fat; then cut it into portion sizes that are sensible for you and your household.

Packaging and Processing Bear-Meat Cuts

A lot of hunters and butchers have traditionally used butcher's paper to wrap meats for the freezer, but paper isn't airtight, and your bear meat won't keep for more than a few months without getting freezer burn. It's better to use heavy-duty freezer bags and squeeze out as much air as possible. Even better, use a vacuum sealer and good-quality vacuum bags. They can extend the life of your bear meat to a year or more.

Bear fat deteriorates quickly in the freezer, so trim away as much surface fat as possible while you work. If you're making sausage and need a certain degree of fat to achieve the right texture, replace the bear fat with milder-tasting pork fat. All the fat you've trimmed from the carcass can be melted down to make lard, if you wish. Strain it well and keep it refrigerated in Mason jars.

All of the trim, scraps, small muscle sections and tough cuts can be turned into ground bear meat. Work in small batches, keeping the rest of your meat in the fridge while you work. Package and refrigerate or freeze the ground meat immediately, because it's highly perishable. If your grinder becomes warm to the touch, take a break and let it cool before you proceed.

Some Safety Precautions

It's always a good idea to wear gloves when you're butchering wild game, because you'll potentially be exposed to diseases and parasites as you work. That's especially true of bears, because they're omnivores.

Safe black bear meat processing also means keeping trichinosis, or, more correctly, trichinellosis, in mind. This is a painful illness caused by eating meat containing a parasite called Trichinella spiralis – the one you think of in relation to pork – or one of the other four Trichina species that's found in North America. T. spiralis can be killed by freezing your meat, but unfortunately, that's not the one you're likely to find in your bear.

Those two species, T. nativa and T-6, are found pretty much everywhere you'll hunt bear, and they are cold-tolerant. To kill them, you'll need to cook your bear meat to a temperature that's lethal for the parasite. The USDA recommends cooking all game to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a "make absolutely sure" temperature that allows for sloppiness and inattention.

A temperature of 137F is all that's needed to actually kill the parasite, but it's difficult for home cooks to reliably be sure of hitting that mark. For the choicest cuts, the ones you don't want to cook to well-done, 145F is a safer target. You'll still need to use a good thermometer to make sure you reach that temperature throughout the cut; otherwise, some larvae can survive and make your life miserable afterwards.

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